The prophet Isaiah foretold the first advent of Christ with the words, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder” (Isa. 9:6, NKJV).
What’s government got to do with it? I thought Jesus was born of the virgin Mary to save me from my sins, to forgive me for my moral wrongs, to die for me so I don’t have to die eternally, to get me out of hell and into heaven?
True enough, but that’s not the whole truth. It’s not even the main point, but rather a secondary effect of a larger messianic vision for the world beating in the breast of the Almighty. Peter called God’s big plan the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21, NKJV). And according to Isaiah, one of the things included in “all things” is “government.”
A Dangerous Baby
It should not be surprising, then, to discover that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This part of the “Christmas story” is rarely told. We like the harmless little Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, while often overlooking the fact that there was a bounty on the Babe’s head (Matt. 2:3, 16). This apparently harmless Newborn was understood to be dangerous to the prevailing world order.
The powers that then were — both demonic and human — wanted Him dead (Rev. 12:4). Rumor had it, according to some ancient Jewish prophecies, that this Baby was a long-awaited King, and, as such, He would pose a threat to the existing political establishment (Psalm 2; 89).
The prophet Daniel was even more explicit than Isaiah. He foretold the rise and fall of a series of successive empires. All of them are revealed to be inherently unsustainable by virtue of the morally bankrupt principles by which they operate. Babylon would be conquered by Medo-Persia, followed by Greece, then Rome, each kingdom conquering and ruling by the same methods: force, deception, greed, oppression, and violence. These empires were the same — superficially different yet the same in substance.
But then Daniel saw something truly and radically different: “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man,” and to Him was given “an everlasting dominion,” a “kingdom” that “shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13, 14). Whereas all the other kingdoms would rise and fall, this one would be eternal. But why? Would it just be more powerful than the others? If the previous kingdoms were forceful and violent, would this one simply be more forceful and violent?
It is right here that we discover an extraordinary feature of the biblical story, and it is this: the kingdom of Christ is eternal precisely because He operates by a fundamentally different kind of power than all the others.
Two Warring Principles
The following paragraph by Ellen White is full of explanatory power for making sense of what’s going on in our world:
“The student should learn to view the word [the Bible] as a whole and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy to the great consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives.”*
At first glance, world events appear countless and complex, confusing, and convoluted. But when we pause and zoom out — allowing Scripture to sharpen our vision — we see that there are really only “two principles that are contending for supremacy” arising from only “two antagonistic motives.”
On the one hand, there is the principle of love, with the various attitudes and actions that emerge from it: honesty, integrity, generosity, courage, kindness, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, peace, faithfulness, and the like.
On the other hand is the antagonistic principle of sin, or selfishness, with its various attitudes and actions: deceit, division, disrespect, greed, cowardliness, pride, hate, retribution, violence, unfaithfulness, and all else that strives for domination over others.
Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose to power by political maneuvers that run contrary to the love of God. Therefore, all of these kingdoms were structurally defective and inevitably self-defeating. Love alone is eternally sustainable, whereas the principles by which evil regimes operate are inherently self-destructive.
One Man against the Whole World
Jesus was born to our world when Rome was the dominant superpower. Caesar Augustus, the first absolute monarch of Rome, had come to power about 27 years before the birth of Christ. He died in AD 14, when Jesus was a teenager growing up in Nazareth. Caesar Augustus was succeeded by his stepson, Tiberius Caesar Augustus, who reigned during the public ministry and crucifixion of Christ (Luke 3:1-3). Appointed by the authority of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, who presided over the trial and crucifixion of Christ (Matt. 27).
Here was one Man, the covenant Son of God, up against the world epitomized in the Roman Empire. Which is to say, here was the embodiment of love up against the paragon of our world’s political power structures.
“Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ ” (John 18:33). Pilate wants to know if Jesus has a political agenda. The answer Jesus gives contains the seeds of thought that will shake the foundations of the whole world:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
At least three things are evident here:
First, yes, Jesus is a king, and He does have a kingdom.
But, second, His kingdom is fundamentally different than any governmental system we fallen humans have ever created. His kingdom does not operate by the principles “of this world.”
And, third, what makes His kingdom different from all other governing systems is that it is fundamentally non-violent. His servants do not “fight” to establish His kingdom.
“Pilate therefore said to Him, ‘Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice’” (John 18:37).
Jesus left no room for guessing about His political agenda. He came to our world to overthrow the entire system of earthly power dynamics and to install a radically different kind of relational system based on “the truth.” And “the truth” of which He speaks is none other than the non-coercive love of God, which He had earlier explained would lead Him to the cross (John 12:23-32). Essentially He says to Pilate, “Do whatever you want to Me, but I will not fight you or Rome or the corrupt Jewish leaders with the same principles by which you all operate, and yet, I will win.”
As the ultimate outworking of the principle of sin, Jesus was then crucified by a union of church and state. The politically motivated power players of the state and the politically motivated power players of the religious system came together to crucify “the truth” of God's love on display in Christ. Let that sink deep into your theological brain, because once you understand this single core feature of the biblical story, you are prepared to see current events as th
ey are and stand on vantage ground in our turbulent political climate.
The Politics of Love
We live in times of extreme political intensity. All of us are under pressure to identify with one political party against the others. Deceptive political agendas and hate-driven ideologies are being urged upon us. Politicians are clamoring for our support as they lie, steal, and cheat with such shocking displays of corruption that we sometimes find it difficult to believe it’s all actually happening.
And yet, there is a superior alternative. In Jesus, we witness a politic of love so beautiful and powerful that it has, in principle, “overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Christianity of Christ transcends, bypasses, befuddles, and supersedes all of our liberal and conservative political categories. Jesus defies our efforts to politicize Him because He has His own distinct political category, which He called “the kingdom of God.”
As followers of Jesus, we must deliberately resist the temptation to give ourselves over to the politics of division and hate that permeate our times. We must stay on task with the proclamation of “the gospel of the kingdom” of Christ, into which all are invited. Our mission transcends all political ideologies.
We are not with any political party.
We are with Jesus.
Our loyalties are with the Babe born of the virgin Mary. We subscribe to the “government” that rests upon “His shoulder” — a government that operates by truth and love, as opposed to deception and violence. Our hearts belong to the one rightful King of the world, the Christ Child, of whom the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14).
* Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1903), 190.